Three years after launching an online magazine for young entrepreneurs called Foundr, Nathan Chan decided it needed a Wikipedia page. “Any legitimate brand has one,” he says. “All our competitors have pages.” There were just two problems. Wikipedia strongly discourages people from creating their own pages. And the site’s five-million-plus articles are largely created by 200,000-some volunteer editors, and it’s unlikely one of them would suddenly take an interest in a small startup and build a page themselves.
This spring, Chan posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew of an editor he could hire to create a Wikipedia page. Someone replied with a referral: an experienced editor who builds pages for a fee. Chan got in touch and agreed to pay $1,300 for pages about both himself and his company.
For all its flaws as a crowdsourced encyclopedia, there is a widespread belief that Wikipedia conveys credibility: If you or your business is on there, you seem legit. This has fueled a booming, underground world of Wikipedia editors for hire -- people who, often secretly, use their expertise and good standing in the Wikipedia community to build pages for attention-starved startups and other paying clients. Services can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Multiple such editors interviewed for this story say they’re inundated with business.
Buyer beware, though: Everything about this service is steeped in uncertainty, starting with whether a Wikipedia page is worth the money. “I see the value from an SEO standpoint,” says Elaine Young, a professor of digital and social media marketing at the Robert P. Stiller School of Business at Champlain College in Vermont. “For an entrepreneur, one of the biggest challenges is getting found, and Wikipedia often comes up first in searches. It provides a starting point for information.”
But whether a page actually confers credibility depends on who’s reading. “If somebody is older, a Wikipedia page with references and information may help them feel more comfortable with a small business,” says Young. Younger audiences, who respond more to social platforms and multimedia, may not pay much attention to the site, however. And young and old alike are liable to dismiss you if you don’t have enough citations to create a robust page. “A lot of pages I’ve seen are just two paragraphs long,” says Leonard Kim, a managing partner at InfluenceTree, a branding firm that creates Wikipedia pages for clients. (Technically, Kim calls it a free add-on service; Wikipedia forbids charging for page creation, unless payment is disclosed on the site.) “They’re kind of premature to the point where they lack info that sells me on the company. Unless you have an amazing founder’s story and a lot of cred from notable people, it could actually hurt.”
In theory, of course, anyone can create a Wikipedia page -- as long as they follow the site’s precise coding, formatting and stylistic guidelines, include enough citations to meet the “notability” requirement, and present all that information in a neutral tone. But the reality is more complicated. Wikipedia’s notability guidelines are vague. And even if a person were to satisfy all the requirements, they are still “strongly discouraged from editing articles directly about themselves or [about] a subject they’re closely affiliated with,” says Samantha Lien, a Wikimedia Foundation communications manager. “This is known as editing with a conflict of interest,” she says, and it’s something Wikipedia’s volunteer editors spend a lot of time policing for. “Whenever something brand-new is put up, someone notices and they scour the thing,” says Kim from InfluenceTree. If the piece is judged deficient in any way, he says, it gets taken down.
That’s what creates opportunity for mercenary editors; their pages are more likely to succeed than the average user’s because they know the rules and, at least on the surface, they appear to be objective, impartial observers. But they’re under scrutiny, too, which is why they’re picky about whom they work with -- and why many have clients sign NDAs. Brendan Gibson runs a page creation company called What About Wiki, and he, like many providers, turns down more than half of potential customers. “If clients don’t have seven to 10 links of positive press, I won’t take them. If they don’t have awards, I won’t take them. If they have a really scummy link profile on Reddit and Quora, I won’t take them,” he says. Otherwise, there’s a higher risk a page will be flagged -- causing the rest of his pages to come under scrutiny.
It doesn’t stop there either. Even if a page does pass muster, an entrepreneur’s work isn’t done. Anyone, including trolls, can edit a Wikipedia page, so any negative news is likely to be featured alongside the positive. That can cost time to monitor, which is why some editors sell a lifetime monitoring and upkeep service. The problem can plague anyone -- even Wikipedia editors.
Kim is dealing with this today, in fact. His personal page (which, yes, he hired someone to create) has been trolled so many times that Wikipedia placed a disclaimer atop it saying the page “may not meet” its guidelines. “It’s one person trying to defame me,” he says. Initially, he worried about his reputation. Then he decided that it was better to have a troll-infested Wikipedia page than no page at all.